THE BLOG

Can Labour Change the Debate on Welfare?

11/07/2013 13:02 BST | Updated 09/09/2013 10:12 BST

On Wednesday afternoon the House of Commons debated whether it was reasonable for the government to implement the most wide-ranging changes to the welfare system since 1948 - changes that will cut incomes and services for disabled people and their families - yet make no assessment of the combined impact of these changes.

After a few heartfelt speeches by Labour MPs, to a near empty chamber, Parliament voted to support the government's position that it has no obligation to estimate the likely impact of its own policies. For the disability campaigners who pushed for this debate the final result was disappointing, but no surprise. After all, why would the government want to advertise the damage that it is doing? By accident or design the government is locked into its vicious policy position.

The key question is what will Labour, the party of opposition, choose to do?

Interestingly there are a few signs that Labour's position may be beginning to change. The failure of policies like the use of ATOS and the Work Programme (both Labour policies) is becoming clearer. The 33% cut to social care is causing chaos in local communities and the NHS. The end of DLA, the end of the ILF, the new Bedroom Tax and so many other cuts, changes and caps will only worsen the situation of people in poverty and many disabled people - especially those with the most severe disabilities.

Particularly encouraging is the fact that there is every sign that - given the right information - the British people will reject policies that attack disabled people and the poor. But will people get to hear the real facts?

Public perceptions are powerfully framed by the positions taken by our leaders. The lie that benefit fraud is a big problem, when spoken by the powerful, and amplified by the media has a radical affect on public opinion. The lie that welfare caused the current economic crisis dominates the debate, perhaps because people need somebody else to blame. These lies frame a debate where the middle ground is hardly better than the position of the heartless few who really don't care what happens to disabled people. The wrong framework twists everything.

For Labour and for the disability movement there is a big challenge ahead. Over time it will become even easier to show how bad and damaging current government policies are. We may even yet see the government take a few backward steps. But the real challenge is to change the framework of debate.

One Tory MP described disability campaigners as extremists, and to back up his claims he cited snippets of the Campaign for a Fair Society's Manifesto. As one of the editors of the Manifesto I am both astonished and intrigued by the venom of this attack. If it is extreme to ask politicians to assess the likely impact of their policy decisions then we must be extreme. If it is extreme to suggest that disabled people belong in our communities, not inside segregated services, then we must be extreme. But perhaps this venom is also an indication of where we need to push this debate.

When the public conversation is distorted by lies and myths - change the conversation. Start a new conversation built on truth, the value of all human beings and the desire to live in a decent and fair society. It's time for the disability movement, working with politicians and other public leaders, to change the debate on welfare and to make the case for a welfare system that unites all of us as equal citizens.